The saddest part is that Max doesn’t know it’s over. He knows that Emily — his best friend, alter ego and partner in everything from puddle jumping to pillow piles—is across the hall in kindergarten. That was a big part of the consolation package we offered, that while indeed Emily would no longer be in Max’s class, she would be just across the hall. And technically she is just across the hall. But for all intents and purposes she’s gone, moved on to the brave new world of kindergarten, and there’s just not enough room in her shiny new queendom of five-year-olds for someone who’s simply four, even if he would slay dragons for her. And he would.
For the better part of the last two years, Max and Emily were as thick—and mischievous—as thieves. In year one they were in different pre-schools, but shared a backyard fence and enough playdates to crash a Macbook Pro. Then we moved a mile away, but in a rare episode of parental coordination, we got them into the same pre-school class, so they spent five mornings and usually a couple afternoons a week together. They swam in the same pool in the summer, sledded on the same hills in the winter, and passed the acid test of all great relationships: they wore each other’s underpants. A lot.
She called him Maxie Boy. He rewrote the chorus of “My Knapsack On My Back” to sing “Emileee, Emilaaa, Emileee, Emila-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.” They had so much in common. They both loved mud puddles, The Jungle Book, taking off their clothes, and more. I have a special place in my mind’s eye and heart for the image of them belting out ‘Hakuna Matata’ at the top of their lungs, turning our minivan into a four-cylinder karaoke bar.
Like all great twosomes, they respected each other’s differences. Land Before Time videos scared Max, but they were Emily’s favorites, so she slipped a comforting arm around his shoulders while they watched. And even when vacations kept them apart for weeks at a time, they’d act to reconnect quickly, convincingly, and on one memorable occasion, revoltingly. They hadn’t seen each other for a couple of weeks one winter, so we invited Emily and family over for a dinner reunion. As the adults cooed over the new baby, Max and Emily went up to his room to swap vacation stories, engage in some fantasy play, and, as we later discovered to our horror, smear feces all over the walls. I won’t bore/disgust you with the graphic details of our discovery/cleanup, but I will share my reflection on the genesis of the event.
Emily had periodically indulged her passion for peeing in the corner of Max’s closet in our old house, and during their separation we had moved to a new one. Max, seeking his place in the long and storied history of men doing mind-numbingly stupid things to impress women, decided it was time to take their relationship to the next level, so to speak. As disgusting as we grown-ups found it, their act was one of pure bonding and love. He knew what she liked, and wanted nothing more than to give it to her. It was downright romantic.
That I look back on that evening with anything but revulsion reminds me of how important their relationship is, not only to each other, but to me. Now the news has come that Emily and her family are moving back to Canada, and Max and I must face the fact that things will indeed never be the same. He has the advantage of a four-year-old’s sense of time—she isn’t leaving for a month, which is longer than he can wrap his cute little mind around, so she isn’t really leaving. Having lived 546 months, I am all too aware of what a blip one is.
I suppose it shouldn’t matter; it’s not like I’m still friends with anyone I went to pre-school with, and I’m muddling through somehow. Once in a while my mother introduces me to one of my pre-school mates at some ridiculous social function, and questions like, “So, do you still respond to stress by jamming peas up your nose?” race through my mind. Fortunately, they rarely escape my mouth.
Intellectually, I understand that pre-school relationships, no matter how delightful, are destined for the scrap heap. Emotionally, I can’t begin to cope. Part of the problem is that nowadays their relationship is supremely unpredictable. One day they’ll meet by chance on the playground, and Emily will diss Max big time in favor of her new kindergarten cronies. Then a single day later they’ll race into an embrace with such force and intensity that you think they’ll come out of it wearing each other’s clothes.
I get nearly paralyzed with sadness when I realize that Max may barely remember Emily was ever in his life. I despise the fact that most people don’t remember anything before age 5, and find this reality a solid recruitment tool for atheism. If there is a god, why would he or she deny you memories of the most carefree yet compelling years of your life. On the other hand, maybe that’s why god invented camcorders.
Still, the disconnect of how incredibly memorable a child’s first few years are for a parent and how decidedly unmemorable they will be for the child is often stunning. It pains me to think that years from now, when I’m trying to stay connected with adolescent Max, reminiscing about the feces-smearing incident won’t be hugely entertaining simply because he won’t remember it. That and if he did he’d likely run screaming from the room.
On the up side, if the grown-ups can get it together enough to keep Max and Emily connected, they have a chance at that rarest and most valuable of relationships: a lifelong friendship. This is why “cousin” is such a treasured word. My only lifelong friends are my first cousins — people who have known me closely forever without the baggage of living under the same roof. I’m watching my kids and their cousins build such relationships, and it’s practically magical.
I also realize that no matter what happens, I have my memories of Max and Emily. I can share them with him when he’s lost his own. And hopefully he’ll understand how precious such memories are, even if they’re not on tape.
Jonathan Kronstadt is a freelance writer and stay-at-home father of two. He lives in Silver Spring, MD.